Poets and Writers
(Syracuse University Press)When I was in college, we had one of those teachers who practiced mesmerism: we'd read a book a week, then spend two hours in class with him, discussing the book. I tell you, he cast a spell on us. He was a magician of the spoken word when talking about the written word, and was able to make the book, any book --- Crime and Punishment, Madam Bovary, The Iliad, The Power and the Glory --- take wings.
What he taught me has stayed with me lo these fifty years: That is, there is a way to see into the heart of a book using the contents of the book alone. Ignore the author and his family life and his drinking habits and his literary influences. All you need is there on the pages of the book; all else is irrelevant.To this day, I try to do as he did: read with careful attention, look for the clues the author has laid out on the page, take brief notes to remind me of the key events, characters, and phrasings.
In his class, one of our books of the week was The Works of Love by Wright Morris. It happened that the author lived nearby. I told the professor, Dr. Gutwirth, that I was tempted to call up Morris and invite him to join us in the discussion of his book. Dr. Gutwirth said, "Well, you could do that, but the book no longer belongs to him. He wrote, it, he sent it out --- and now it's ours. We don't care what he thinks he did when he wrote it; there is even a very good chance that he might not understand what he has created."
It's not unlike our children: you and I think we know what we have produced, and then one day you turn around and those creatures no longer belong to you and you and I are going to be the worst person in the world to try to figure out what planet they've moved to.
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Over the last twenty years, Robert Phillips has interviewed writers and poets for The Paris Review. He includes eight of these here --- including ones with Philip Larkin, Joyce Carol Oates, Karl Shapiro, William Jay Smith and William Styron.
God knows why anyone in their right mind would want to interview these characters, much less read an interview with them. If someone is a worthy writer, we should be spending time with their books, not wasting it on questions about where they went to school and who influenced them and what they do on weekends and what they have for breakfast and most of all, what they think about their own writings.
Most worthy writers stay the hell away from these arty interviews. Vladimir Nabokov loathed critics and strenuously avoided those who wanted to ask him dopey questions like "Tell us about the sources of your inspiration" and "Is there a person who was your inspiration for Humbert Humbert?" and "Did you have a happy childhood?" I can see one of these interview ninnies turning up in the early 17th century asking Shakespeare whether his father loved him, and whether he named Hamlet Hamlet because of the death of his own child Hamnet, and why he only left his wife his second best bed and what exactly did he mean anyway by the lines "To be or not to be..."
If you want to be driven mad (or, still, after all this time, have that fake romantic notion about "The Madness of Art"), I suppose this would be your book. All it proves to me is that Joyce Carol Oates in live interview is just as arrogant and unseeing as the characters in those low-life novels she churns out like hot dogs, she being the Oscar Mayer of what's left of American literature.
And William Styron! Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. One only has to read Darkness Visible, his account of his nervous breakdown, to see that he couldn't tell a neurosis from a tea-pot, and neither from reality. As one of our reviewers wrote not long ago about the book Unholy Ghost,
As soon as Styron starts in on his version of The Miseries, we get the feeling that there's something screwy. He is capable, without even trying hard, to come up with some startling howlers, making him a modern-day neo-psychological Polonius. "I shall never learn what 'caused' my depression," he tells us, "as no one will ever learn about their own." No one? This ignores what many perceptive writers (such as Larry McMurtry) have found out. Most have a damn good idea of the source of the blues and have consequently acquired a fair amount of personal insight from it.
"A vast majority of survivors of Auschwitz," Styron tells us, "have borne up fairly well." Now where in God's name did that one come from? One of my psychotherapists was actively involved in treating older survivors of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He told me that for many of them there had to be a conscious decision, on a daily basis, as to whether they were going to continue living or not.
And, finally, there's this astonishing solecism, contradicted by the writings of thousands of psychologists, psychotherapists, and other care-givers:
"Save for the awfulness of certain memories it leaves, acute depression inflicts few permanent wounds..."
This guy is a menace to the trade, the Archie Bunker of the Psychotropic Set. Those of us in the depression fraternity should band together --- if we can ever make it out of our various Sloughs of Despond --- and take up a collection to get a restraining order against Styron, get him banned from ever writing about bipolar disorder ever again. Otherwise those who seek help in the current literature may well find themselves stuck in a dismal hole of ignorance from which they'll never be able to escape.
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Some of the lines in The Madness of Art do spark an interest. Those of us who get an attack of mal de mer when we read the poetry of Robert Penn Warren can only rejoice at Karl Shapiro's words:
Phillips. Can you think of a good poet who has a bad ear?
Shapiro. Yes, but I can't say this on tape. The author of All the King's Men.
Phillips. You didn't name him.
Shapiro. Of course not! It astonishes me that this can be --- that there's a poet who has a tin ear.
But about the only interview worth your time --- and it is well worth your time --- is the one with that notorious iconoclast and crank, Philip Larkin. He didn't like literary snoops any more than Nabokov did, and the only reason he let Phillips in his door is that (1) he knew his time was nigh (he died three years after the interview), and (2) he didn't let Phillips in his door: the interview was conducted entirely "by post."
"Personally," Larkin wrote him, "I think I have been interviewed far too much already; I always say the same things, and it must be getting very boring by now." When Phillips, ever the groupie, asks Larkin to sign a book for him, Larkin trenchantly responds, "Every book that I sign for a stranger devalues those I have signed for friends."
Those of us who care for poetry think of Larkin as one of the gods, and his insights are a wonder. Here are some of our favorites:
Larkin. I've never been much interested in other people's poetry --- one reason for writing, of course, is that no one's written what you want to read.
Phillips. Davison sees your favorite subject as failure and weakness.
Larkin. I think a poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not what his subjects are. Otherwise you're getting near the totalitarian attitude of wanting poems about steel-
production figures rather than Mais oû sont les neiges d'antan? Poetry isn't a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with. A good poem about failure is a success.
Phillips. How did you arrive upon the image of a toad for work or labor.
Larkin. Sheer genius.--- Lolita Lark